Katsukawa Shunshō (c.1726-1792) is one of the preeminent artists of the ukiyo-e, and the most important one of the era between Harunobu and the great masters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He is one of the few that can also be acknowledged as a great painter and not only as a designer of book illustrations and woodblock prints.
Mentor of Many of the Ukiyo-e Greats
When Shunshō founded the Katsukawa school, derived from the Miyagawa school (Miyagawa Chōshun), he trained many of the ukiyo-e greats such as Shun’ei (1762-1819), Shunkō (1743-1812), Shunchō (act. 1780-1795), and, above all, Shunrō, who later changed his name to Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Shunshō’s Exceptional Erotica
Besides the daily management of the Katsukawa studio and working in various ukiyo-e genres such as kabuki-e (actor print) and bijin-ga (female portraits), Shunshō also produced some exceptional erotica. These were rich in color and full of emotion.
This is true for ‘Haikai Album of the Cuckoo‘ which is one of the artist’s most successful in terms of relation between the images and the dialogues between the protagonists.
So let’s take a look at a few of those striking examples…
Doing the Laundry
A design (Fig.1.) featuring a subject cherished by shunga artists, with a husband mounting his wife from the rear while she bents over a tub. She is doing the laundry outside the house (probably in the garden) as indicated by the sandals they both wear.
The fallen clog of the female emphasizes the quickness of her spouse’s movement, and ensures that she must seek support on the tub and his forearm. He reveals to her that he could not withstand the view of her from behind, but she berates him for being stupid, because they can be viewed from all sides.
The puppy cat, in the meantime, yelps brusquely, and looks provocatively at their active private parts. He is also given some modest dialogue in which he expresses his enjoyment at the spectacle and its seminal outcome. The intertwining of the lover’s legs, their eyes closed in bliss, and the fluids released indicate the intensity and pleasure of their sensations.
In this tableau (Fig.2.) Shunshō uses the device of a beam of light from a paper lantern standing on the floor, to highlight the intimate activities of a young housekeeper and a middle-aged samurai. The result is a scene of nocturnal violence in which the couple’s faces and genital organs are brightly lit
Visibility of Flesh
A great example of how shunga can suggest a sense of eroticism and expectation with only the slightest visibility of flesh (Fig.3.). It is winter, and a man and a woman have sought out the warmth of the brazier (kotatsu).
As the man becomes amorous, with one hand he tries to pull his companion to the floor, and with the other he lifts up her skirts. Worried about someone coming into the room, the woman tries to pull herself up again, her face half emerging, but her raised knee serves only to reveal what the man is aiming for.
As they move, the covering blanket is pulled off, dislodging the cat from it favorite hotspot. Aggrivated, it stretches and yawns, complaining, ‘Just when I was sleeping so nicely…They’re such a noisy pair.’
Shunshō conveys the sudden movement of the man’s passionate impulse by the mass of the blanket and the folds of the woman’s clothing. Underneath the cloth we can surmise the outline of the man’s back, but he is concealed all but for his crown, one hand and one knee.
Extraordinary Work of Art
Although Haikai Album of the Cuckoo is undoubtedly an extraordinary work of art, it must be remembered that it was produced in the same year as the most famous erotic masterpiece of the Floating World, namely Utamaro‘s Poem of the Pillow (Utamakura).
You can check out some great shunga art by one of Shunshō’s most talented pupils by clicking HERE…!!
Sources: ‘Shunga, Erotic Art in Japan‘ by Rosina Buckland
‘Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories…‘ by Gian Carlo Calza
Who is your favorite shunga artist?